A message given Sunday, December 31, 2006
by Rev. Scott Summerville
2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
We hosted the Summerville family Christmas gathering this year. From Connecticut, upstate New York, Brooklyn, Ohio, and London they came to the big old parsonage.
Once again it was a child who stole the show: Alysha, our two and half year old niece, my brother’s daughter from London. Not only did she have the advantage the only child among us, being from London she would also make those adorable little comments like,“May I have a little porridge please?” The little child always steals the show. My mother did make a move to grab the spotlight, getting herself hospitalized on Christmas Day, but when she was discharged later in the week, Alysha managed to reclaim 90% of everyone’s attention.
Today our eyes are on a child –– the child Jesus, the Child of Christmas.
Mary Ellen and I were married by the world’s leading expert on Christmas, Father Raymond Brown, now deceased, formerly distinguished professor of New Testament at Union Seminary. Fr. Ray Brown wrote the book on Christmas, a mammoth thousand page study of the stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. His work is still the standard for New Testament study of the Christmas story.
We were married in a Catholic church on Long Island. Mary Ellen was then an Irish Catholic; she is still Irish –– I am pretty sure. We were married in her home parish St. Anthony of Padua in East Northport. At the end of the ceremony Father Brown observed that this was probably the first time in history of that parish that two seminarians had married each other. Actually it may be one of the only times in the last thousand years that seminarians married one another in a Catholic Church!
Last Sunday we heard the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. In his Christmas story
Luke identifies Jesus with the poor and the powerless. Mary sings:
he has brought down the powerful
from their thrones and lifted up the lowly––––
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich empty away.
In Luke’s story Jesus is born in a stable among the farm creatures. Shepherds, the lowest class of society, come to witness the child. There is a serenity to Luke’s story: being born in a stable, the place of animals, conveys a sense of the original harmony of creation – restored at that moment of Jesus’ birth.
Today we have heard a portion of the Christmas story as it was told in a very different way by Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel a shadow falls over the child from the moment of his birth:
Jesus is born into a world tangled with cruelty and violence.
The little ones of Bethlehem are slaughtered at the order of an evil and paranoid ruler. There is wailing and deep sorrow in Judea. Jesus himself is sought out for destruction, and his parents are forced to become refugees at his birth.
They are visited by magi; wealth is given to him – splendid gifts are laid before him, but they are of no use to him; they must be left behind as Joseph, Mary take Jesus and run for their lives.
In Luke’s gospel the angels announce news of great joy.
In Matthew’s Gospel Rachel, the ancient mother of Israel, weeps.
It is not a tender scene we come upon today in Matthew’s gospel. It is a scene very much like the news of our own times, a scene of terrible suffering visited upon the innocent. When I was a boy we would make an annual trip to my grandmother’s house. It was a big old house, fun to explore. One day at grandma’s house I came upon an old Bible with engraved illustrations. I was browsing through the Bible looking at the drawings, when I came upon an illustration that seared my eyes and my mind. It was an illustration for today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew chapter 2. It showed the soldiers of King Herod slaughtering the children of Bethlehem. I was horrified – I can see that engraving so clearly in my mind even to this day.
I did not ask any of the adults about the meaning of it; I simply closed the book and put it away with the deep dread, a sense that I had seen things that I should see. An awareness broke into my child’s mind that there are terrible things that take place upon this earth, things too terrible to speak of.
The Christmas story –– the actual story in the gospels, is not like the Christmas cards we send and receive –– all about joy and peace and heavenly light.
There is beauty and innocence in the Christmas story –
there is the hope of a new creation –
there is the promise of peace.
But in the Christmas story there is also:
terror and brutality,
the abuse of power and privilege,
injustice and cruel disparities of wealth.
A late Christmas card arrived as I was pondering Matthew’s story the other day: shepherds in colorful robes, fluffy sheep, a flying angel blowing on a long slender trumpet, pointing the shepherds in the direction of a star and a manger – the scene – though at night – was glowing with light.
The words on the card were familiar:
Joy came down on Christmas Day…
Peace came down on Christmas Day…
Love came down on Christmas Day…
to fill the hearts of men with sweet tranquility…
The message was lovely, but I could not help thinking that the Christmas story is not just a story of love and tranquility. It is about all that, but it also about real life in a violent and troubled world.
So I began to wonder whether it is possible to have a Christmas greeting card that would be more authentic to the actual stories of Christmas in the Gospels.
I came up with some ideas – these are just a rough draft; they need editing, and some might not be quite the right note to strike on Christmas, but I have another year to work on them.
The savior has come! Christ is born!
It was a terrifying time to be born;
his parents must have been scared out of their minds.
They were like ants in a world of giants ,
and the giants were out to get them.
Are you scared?
Sometimes I am, too; we all are.
Fear can twist your life.
May you cope as Mary and Joseph coped.
Trust your dreams.
Face your fears and prevail. Blessed Christmas.
Card # 2:
Christmas! Christ the savior is born!
The hungry he fills with good things;
the rich he sends empty away.
Are you hungry this Christmas?
Not me, I will eat way too much.
I am hoping for a year end rally in the stock market.
How is your portfolio doing?
Card # 3:
Christ is born! News of great joy!
Joy is a dangerous thing.
Real joy, I mean.
To rejoice – wow, that means laying your heart on the line,
taking a full drink of life,
throwing caution to the wind,
embracing existence – this holy existence on earth
with all its cruelty and all its beauty.
Real joy is risky – it’s letting God grab you and carry you.
If you want a nice family holiday with quiet contentment,
stick with Thanksgiving or Mother’s Day.
Joy – that’s not something to mess around with.
Joy is powerful and dangerous and life-changing.
That’s as far as I have gotten on this project.
Blessings to you as Christmas fades and the new year begins.